33 Million. According to the ancient scriptures, that’s how many total gods there are in Hinduism. With such an indescribably large count, one can often become overwhelmed and perplexed. Why are there so many gods? What are their purposes? Are all of them worshipped?
To understand the Hindu pantheon, one must first know the answer to this question: Is Hinduism polytheistic? As a Hindu, that is a question that I often get from others. In the contemporary era, all major religions are monotheistic, such as the Abrahamic religions. For those who aren’t aware, monotheistic religions believe in one supreme god, while polytheistic religions believe in multiple deities.
- Is Hinduism Polytheistic?
- The Trimurti: The Three Foremost Gods
- The Tridevi: The Wives of the Trimurti
- Indra and the Devas
- The Navagrahas: The Gods of the Heavenly Bodies
- Semi-Divine Beings
Is Hinduism Polytheistic?
The answer to this question is a blatant no. Hindus believe in one supreme God, known as Brahman. This omnipotent God is alternatively known as Parabrahma, Purushottam, or Paramatma. All these names connote the same concept: a single God who is above all other entities. Various sects of Hinduism believe in different gods as being the Brahman.
- Vaishnavism believes Lord Vishnu and his avatars/forms to be Brahman
- Shaivism worships Lord Shiva as Brahman
- Shaktism honors Adi Parashakti Devi (Parvati and her avatars/forms) as Brahman
- Other sects of Hinduism worship other gods as Brahman
Thus, Hindus do worship one supreme God. This supreme God is the controller of the infinite universes (brahmands), and he presides over everything and everyone. But what makes Hinduism unique is that it also recognizes other gods. According to Hinduism, there are infinite universes, and each universe has a set of gods. These other gods are subordinate to Brahman. Their job is to perform their assigned tasks in their assigned universe. Throughout this post, we will be going through some of the most significant gods and goddesses in Hinduism.
The Trimurti: The Three Foremost Gods
The Trimurti (alternatively known as the Trideva) are the three most important gods of the universe. They control the universe and all of its functions. The Trimurti consists of Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver, and Shiva the Destroyer. According to the Brahma Vaivarta Purana, Yoga Vashishta, and other scriptures, there is a Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva in each universe.
And who will search through the wide infinities of space to count the universes side by side, each containing its Brahma, its Vishnu, its Shiva?-Brahma Vaivarta Purana
Brahma, the Creator of the Universe
The first member of the Trimurti is Lord Brahma, the creator of the universe. A day of Brahma is called a Kalpa, and it is equivalent to 4.32 billion years. At the beginning of each Kalpa, Brahma creates the universe. At the end of each Kalpa, the universe is completely decimated (for more insight on the cycle of creation and destruction, see Time in Hinduism). As the creator, Brahma’s task is to create the universe and everything in it at the start of each Kalpa. Thus, Brahma creates the planets, lokas, Devas, Asuras, rishis, and the first human being: Manu. Due to a curse from Lord Shiva, Brahma is rarely worshipped today by Hindus.
Vishnu, the Preserver of the Universe
The second member of the Trimurti is Lord Vishnu, the preserver. After Brahma creates the universe, Vishnu’s job is to preserve and protect it. The Bhagavata Purana states that whenever evil defeats good, Lord Vishnu takes an avatar (incarnation) on Earth to defeat the evil and restore dharma (righteousness). The Bhagavata Purana Canto 1 Chapter 3 gives us a list of all of Vishnu’s avatars in this Kalpa. He has taken twenty-three unique avatars so far, and he will take one more at the end of the Kaliyuga. Thus, Vishnu will in total take twenty-four avatars in this Kalpa (full list). Out of these, there are ten famous avatars known as the Dashavatar:
- Matsya, to rescue Vaivasvata Manu (the first man) during the time of the great deluge
- Kurma, to support Mount Mandara during the Samudra Manthan by the Devas and Asuras
- Varaha, to kill the evil asura Hiranyaksha
- Narasimha, the kill Hiranyaksha’s brother Hiranyakashipu
- Vamana, to defeat the asura king Bali
- Parshuram, to kill Kartavirya Arjuna and the other evil kshatriyas
- Rama, to slay the evil Rakshasa king Ravana
- Krishna, to kill Kansa, Dantavakra, Shishupala, and many others, and to help the Pandavas during the Mahabharata
- Buddha, to spread the importance of liberation and to propagate Buddhism
- Kalki, to destroy the evil that will take over the world during Kali Yuga (Kalki is the 24th avatar that hasn’t come yet)
Shiva, the Destroyer of the Universe
The last member of the Trimurti is Lord Shiva, the destroyer. At the end of each Kalpa, Shiva performs the Tandava dance, which signals the end of an age. He then proceeds to destroy the entire universe. Along with that, Shiva is infamously known for the third eye on his forehead. The third eye remains closed, but when he chooses to open it, it has the power to destroy the entire universe. Some other distinguishing features of Lord Shiva include his trishula (trident), the snake around his neck, and the Ganga River flowing out of his hair. He lives on Mount Kailash, which is in modern-day Tibet.
The Tridevi: The Wives of the Trimurti
- Saraswati is the Hindu goddess of knowledge, art, music, speech, and intellect, and she is the wife Brahma. She was also the goddess of the Saraswati River, an extinct river in Western India. The story goes such that once, a huge war took place between the Bhargavas and Haihayas. From that war, an all-consuming fire was created. The gods approached Saraswati for help, who transformed into a river and absorbed the fire.
- Lakshmi is the wife of Vishnu. She is the goddess of wealth and prosperity. Hindus pray to goddess Lakshmi for fortune and success in any financial situations. There are also eight secondary forms of Lakshmi, all of which pertain to different types of wealth. They are collectively known as Ashtalakshmi (‘eight Lakshmis’).
- Parvati is the wife of Shiva, and she is the goddess of family and bhakti (devotion). In Shaktism, she is revered as the Mother Goddess (Adi Parashakti) and the supreme deity. Being the Mother Goddess, Parvati has hundreds of different aspects and incarnations. Different regions and traditions of India honor different aspects of Parvati. Some of the most important forms of Parvati include:ga
- Durga: She is a demon-fighting form of Parvati, and her stories are enumerated in Puranas like the Skanda Purana. She is famous for killing the demon Mahishasura. Durga herself has nine different forms known as the Navadurga.
- Ten Mahavidyas: They are ten fierce incarnations of Parvati. The Ten Mahavidyas consist of Mahakali, Tara, Tripura Sundari, Bhuvaneshwari, Bhairavi, Bagalamukhi, Dhumavati, Chinnamasta, Matangi, and Kamala.
- There are many other goddesses worshipped as forms of Parvati, such as Meenakshi, Kanyakumari, Kamakshi, and Annapurna.
Durga and Kali
Durga and Kali are the two most well-known forms of Parvati and Adi Parashaki Devi in Hinduism. There are temples and rituals dedicated to them all around India and the world. Durga is a goddess of war who primarily defeats evil demons. Durga was created to defeat the evil demon Mahishasura. The gods were repeatedly defeated by the ever-powerful Mahishasura. In a desperate attempt, they got together and combined all of their energies to create a goddess named Durga. Ultimately, Durga defeated Mahishasura and saved the gods. Her mount is a lion and she bears various weapons.
Similar to Durga, Kali is also represented as one who destroys the evil in the world. Kali is by far, the most deadly and powerful form of Devi. She is variously known as a goddess of destruction, power, and time. Kali appears in the Vedas and the Puranas, and even the Mahabharata, but her most famous appearance is in the Devi Mahatmya. In the aforementioned text, she slays demons such as Raktabija, Madhu, and Kaitabha.
Indra and the Devas
The Devas are the main gods in Hinduism. All the Devas have different roles in the Universe and they each control something different. The Devas live in Swarga, or heaven. Swarga is a divine realm high in the universe, with beautiful gardens and ornate palaces. As I mentioned earlier, there are millions of different Devas, responsible for different aspects of the universe we live in. They are immortal because of the amrita (nectar) they regularly consume.
The most notable Deva is Indra, the king of the Devas. Indra can be compared to Zeus from Greek mythology. He is the king of the Devas and the god of lightning, thunder, rains, and weather. Indra lives in Amaravati, the capital of Swarga.
Indra is one of the most prominent gods in Hinduism. He finds mention in almost any story in Hinduism. Being the lord of the weathers simply adds to his importance. Indra is famous for his arrogance and inflated ego because of his high position. There are many stories in which Indra’s ego led him to disrespect powerful people, and he suffered severe consequences.
Ganesha and Kartikeya
Ganesha and Kartikeya are two of the most important gods in Hinduism. They are both the sons of Shiva and Parvati. Ganesha, also known as Ganapati or Vinayaka, is one of the most revered Hindu gods, worshiped by everyone regardless of their sect or traditions. He has the head of an elephant and the body of a man. Ganesha is the god of success and the remover of obstacles in life. He is the one who brings prosperity to one’s life. That is why he is venerated before any auspicious work or puja. For example, Hindu marriage ceremonies always begin with a Ganesha puja. That way, Ganesha will bring prosperity and success to the newlywed couple. There are many interesting stories of Ganesha, such as his birth story and the reason why he has an elephant’s head.
Ganesha’s elder brother Kartikeya is the god of war and wartime victory. Hence, Kartikeya is the war commander of the gods and their army. Others names for Kartikeya include Murugan, Skanda, and Kumara. Kartikeya has a very interesting birth story. He was born to kill the villainous demon Tarakasura, who had conquered Swarga and harassed the Devas. He was raised by the six Krittikas, the goddesses of the Pleiades star cluster. When Shiva and Parvati found him, he led the army of the Devas into war and defeated Tarakasura. Southern Indians highly worship Kartikeya, and some even believe him to be Brahman. The Hindus of Indonesia and Malayasia also revere Kartikeya.
The Other Devas
Along with Indra, many other Devas are eminent in Hinduism, Hindu scriptures, and Hindu texts. Below is a list of some of the most important Devas you should definitely be familiar with. Make sure to click on the individual posts if you want to know more.
- Varuna: the god of waters and all bodies of water
- Agni: the god of fire, conveys offerings to the gods through yagnas
- Vayu: the god of wind, father of the Pandava Bhima and Lord Hanuman
- Yama: the god of death and dharma and the king of Naraka (Hell). When a human’s time on Earth expires, Yama takes him to Yamapuri, where his good deeds are weighted against his bad deeds. Depending on his deeds, he is either tortured in Naraka or taken to Swarga.
- Kubera: the god of wealth. Kubera lives in Alaka near Mount Kailash and possesses huge treasures. Originally, he resided in Lanka, but he was kicked out by his half-brother Ravana.
- The Ashvins: the twin gods of health and medicine, and the healer of the gods
- Vishwakarma: the god of architecture and building, and the architect of the gods. He has constructed many famous structures and objects, such as Indra’s palace in Amaravati, the Pushpaka Vimana of Ravana, and Indra’s weapon “Vajra“.
Devas vs. Asuras
The Asuras are the demons of Hinduism. They are supernatural beings who reside in the lower realms of the Universe, collectively known as Patala. However, contrary to popular belief, the Asuras are not cannibalistic monsters with horns. They are just beings who are adharmic (unrighteous) and often commit sinful deeds. They represent negative qualities such as chaos, immorality, and arrogance.
The Asuras are famous for their animosity with the Devas. The Devas and the Asuras constantly struggled for power over the Universe. In the Puranas, it is said that there were twelve major clashes between the Devas and the Asuras, and numerous minor ones. Generally, the stories of Asuras start out with them obtaining insane powers from Brahma, Shiva, or Vishnu. But the Asuras end up using these powers for wrongful deeds and harass everyone. In the end, a battle ensues and the Devas defeat the Asuras in some way or the other.
Although the Asuras are not a category of gods, they are still important semi-divine figures in Hinduism. They are often central to the stories of gods and avatars. Some of the most famous Asuras that you may have heard of include Hiranyaksha, Hiranyakashipu, Mahishasura, Tarakasura, Bali, and Banasura.
The Navagrahas: The Gods of the Heavenly Bodies
The Navagrahas are the nine gods of the heavenly bodies in Hinduism. They represent the prominent celestial bodies in our night sky, such as the planets, the sun, the moon, and others. They are very important deities because they are a crucial part of astrology and human life. Each of the Navagrahas also represents a day of the week. I will now discuss each Navagraha and their significance in the Hindu pantheon and in Hinduism as a whole.
The Sun and the Moon
Surya and Chandra are the two most important Navagrahas. Surya (also known as Vivasvan) is the god of the Sun, and everything connected to it, such as light and day. He also represents Sunday, or Ravivar. Every day, Lord Surya drives his sun chariot across the sky just as the Sun moves across the sky. His chariot is pulled by seven white horses, and his chariot’s name is Aruna. Lord Surya is an important deity in Hinduism. There are several ancient Hindu temples dedicated to Lord Surya, the most famous being the Konark Sun Temple. Along with that, the Surya Namaskar, or sun salutation, is a celebrated Yoga routine performed in the morning. In Hindu mythology, Surya’s descendants constituted the famous Suryavansha (Solar Dynasty) of kings. Famous kings in this dynasty included Lord Rama, Sagara, Ambarisha, Dilipa, and others.
On the other hand, Chandra is the presiding deity of the Moon and the night. He is also known as Soma, and he represents Monday, or Somvar. Chandra is famous in Hindu stories for brewing trouble amongst the Devas and Asuras many times. Along with that, he married the 28 Nakshatras, important astrological goddesses in Hinduism. Each Nakshatra goddess represents a sector of the night sky. Chandra is important because his descendants included the Chandravansha (Lunar Dynasty) of kings. The lunar dynasty was very expansive, and famous figures born in this dynasty include the Pandavas and Kauravas, Lord Krishna, Bharata, Nahusha, Yayati, Divodasa, and others.
The Other Planetary Gods
The next two Mangala and Budha. Mangala is the god of the planet Mars and Tuesday, or Mangalavar. Mangala was born from Shiva’s sweat when it touched the Earth. He often represents war and celibacy. Budha is the god of the planet Mercury and Wednesday, or Budhvar. Buddha is actually the son of Chandra (the Moon). Buddha’s son Pururavas was the first king of the Chandravansha.
The fifth and sixth Navagrahas are Brihaspati and Shukra. Brihaspati is the god of the planet Jupiter and the lord of Thursday, or Guruvar. Brihaspati is often known as Guru because he is the teacher of the Devas. There are many stories connected to Brihaspati and how he advised the Devas in many situations. Meanwhile, Shukra is the god of the planet Venus and Friday (Shukravar). is the teacher of the Asuras. That is why he is more commonly known as Shukracharya. The seventh Navagraha is Shani, the deity of the planet Saturn and Saturday (Shanivar). Shani is the son of Surya, and he is the god of karma and justice.
Rahu and Ketu: Shadow Planets
The last two Navagrahas are Rahu and Ketu. Unlike the other Navagrahas, Rahu and Ketu don’t represent celestial bodies. Instead, the represent the north and south lunar nodes respectively. The lunar nodes are when the Moon’s orbital plane intersects the Sun’s plane. Thus, they are called shadow planets. Because eclipses occur when the Sun and Moon is at either of the lunar nodes, Rahu and Ketu preside over eclipses. Rahu is responsible for causing the solar eclipse, while Ketu causes the lunar eclipse. According to a Hindu story, Rahu and Ketu are actually two parts of a demon named Swarbhanu. An incident happened such that Swarbhanu developed an enmity with Surya and Chandra, which is why Rahu and Ketu “swallow” the Sun and Moon during eclipses.
Besides a host of gods and goddesses, Hinduism contains a large array of semi-divine beings. These beings, although powerful, are not considered gods. Thus, they aren’t generally worshiped, but they are still prominent in Hindu literature, stories, and art. They come in various types and natures, from benevolent nymphs to nefarious monsters. They reside in different realms, on the earth but also in underground worlds or in heavenly abodes in the vicinity of the gods. In the Puranas, they are generally mentioned in their respective groups, and they frequently flock together to watch important events. There are numerous different classes of semi-divine beings, and it would be a mammoth task to enumerate all of them. But I will certainly describe some of the more significant groups.
Apsaras and the Gandharvas: Entertainers of the Devas
The first of the many classes of semi-divine beings is the Apsaras. The Apsaras are heavenly nymphs whose primary job is to entertain the Devas in Swarga. They often do this through dance and song. The Apsaras are the most beautiful women in the Universe, engrained with divine elegance and resplendence. They are also famous for their numerous romances with different sages and kings. Indra often sends the Apsaras to seduce powerful men and distract them from their quest for power. Some of the most famous romances of Hindu mythology include King Pururavas and Urvashi, Vishwamitra Rishi and Menaka, and Kesari Vanara and Punjikasthala.
Apsaras are sometimes married to the Gandharvas, heavenly musicians of the Devas. Their job is to sing and play instruments to entertain the Devas. Gandharvas also have great skills in battle. Chitrasena is the king of the Gandharvas.
Rakshasas, Yakshas, and Nagas
Rakshasas are the monsters of Hinduism. They come in various sizes and forms; many of them look similar to humans, while others take the shape of ogres or deadly animals. Some of them have horns and large teeth, while others have red skin and dark fur. Whatever the case, Rakshasas are generally malevolent beings. Many of them lived in the forests and feasted on a passerby. Others ruled kingdoms and oppressed their citizens with cruelty and hunger for power. Rakshasas are often confused with Asuras, but in reality, they are two completely different classes of beings. The most prominent Rakshasa by far in Hindy mythology was Ravana, the king of Lanka. He is famous for being the main antagonist of the Ramayana. Other, more stereotypical and cannibalistic Rakshasa, include Bakasura, Hidimba, and Ghatotkacha.
In contrast, Yakshas are benevolent nature spirits. They are the guardians of the lakes, forests, trees, and wilderness. There are not many stories of Yakshas in Hinduism. The most well-known is of the famous Yaksha-Prashna episode from the Mahabharata. A Yaksha who was the guardian of a lake interrogated Yudhishthira about dharma. The Yakshas are led by Kubera and live in the Himalayas.
Nagas are celestial snakes who live in the lower realms of the universe. Nagas are highly controversial in that sometimes, they are expressed as virtuous beings, while other times, they’re depicted as immoral. There are many tales involving Nagas in Hinduism, and they frequently appear as supporting character in important events. Vasuki and Shesha, the king of the Nagas and Vishnu’s resting place respectively, are by far, the two most significant Nagas you may have heard of. Other Nagas include Takshaka, Kauravya, and even Ulupi the Naga princess.
As you have seen through this post, there are hundreds of deities in Hinduism, each with their own backstory and defining features that makes them stand out from the rest. That is what makes Hinduism so interesting. It is a vast reservoir of unique figures and stories, all of them worth exploring. In no way is this a comprehensive or complete list of all the Hindu deities. If I were to do that, this post would be endless. But this post covers some of the most significant characters that anyone seeking to learn about Hinduism should know before proceeding. I truly hope that this post has been informative and helpful in your learnings. I highly encourage you to learn more about the unique gods, which is why I have linked their individual posts.